Penrith Panthers v Gold Coast Titans
A huge game for the Gold Coast looms this weekend with victory against the Panthers potentially propelling them into the top eight for just the third time this season (having sat first after their opening round win over North Queensland and eighth for a week in Round 21).
Currently two points outside the top eight but one of five teams still in the hunt for the two remaining finals berths, the Titans boast the better of the NRL draw this weekend and will have pencilled in a win over Penrith as a must as they look to chase down the pack.
Key to their progression up the ladder is the fact that the three sides sitting just two points above them in seventh, eighth and ninth all face tough outings this weekend – Brisbane heading to Manly, Wests Tigers facing the Roosters without skipper Robbie Farah and Canberra hosting competition favourites Canterbury.
Four wins from their past six matches has been the catalyst for the Gold Coast’s rise and with Greg Bird, Ashley Harrison, William Zillman and Nate Myles all having returned in recent weeks they certainly boast the squad to make a late push for a finals spot.
Then again, Penrith are no longer the directionless unit they have been for much of the season and will take plenty of confidence from their come-from-behind victory away to the Warriors last Sunday.
It’s been a tough year for Panthers fans. Having struggled on the field all season, they have also seen star fullback Michael Gordon and captain Luke Lewis sign on with Cronulla for 2013, with rumours rife of player discontent.
Yet they appear to have put that behind them now with the club determined to set a good platform for next season by finishing this year strong.
Gordon’s return from injury at fullback has provided a huge boost in recent weeks while coach Ivan Cleary may well have pulled off a master-stroke by moving Lachlan Coote into the halves following the lengthy suspension of five-eighth Travis Burns.
With Penrith still desperate to avoid the wooden spoon and perhaps even move a few more rungs up the ladder, this isn’t the easy task it may once have been for the Gold Coast.
The Panthers welcome back both centres Michael Jennings (suspension) and Brad Tighe (injury) this week, with Josh Mansour moving back to the wing, Travis Robinson returning to a five-man bench and Tom Eisenhuth dropping out. Nigel Plum moves into the starting side at lock.
The Gold Coast will head into the clash with the same squad that downed Parramatta last week with Brenton Lawrence added to a five-man bench.
Panthers captain Kevin Kingston is poised to become the first Penrith player in NRL history to record 1000 tackles in a season, needing just 24 more to reach the milestone. Kingston has made no fewer than 37 tackles in any match this year and averages 48.8.
Watch Out Panthers: Nate Myles has made a huge difference to the Gold Coast since returning from injury a month ago. Already averaging 120 metres per game in 2012, he has boosted his involvement even further since being moved to the front row (in place of the injured Luke Bailey) having run for 142 and 165 metres respectively against Melbourne and Parramatta.
Danger Sign: Gold Coast’s back three are masters at starting a set of six with forward momentum, averaging more metres per kick return than any other side in the competition. The Storm’s back three – William Zillman, Kevin Gordon and David Mead – have averaged 12.4 metres per run and rank third in the NRL for average metres gained per match.
Watch Out Titans: The Gold Coast’s right-side defence can expect a working over this Saturday given just how heavily the Panthers favour their left edge with the ball in hand. Penrith have scored 37 tries on their left but just 16 on their right this season – Michael Jennings leading the way with eight tries and 11 line-breaks.
Danger Sign: Errors have been the bane of Titans coach John Cartwright’s existence this season and could again come back to hurt them if they continue turning the ball over this weekend. The Gold Coast have made a worrying 260 errors in 2012 – the worst record in the Telstra Premiership when it comes to respecting the football.
Michael Gordon v William Zillman: Two players who have sparked their sides to life at various stages of the year, Gordon and Zillman will again be heavily involved this weekend. Gordon has averaged 171 metres per game since returning four weeks ago while Zillman has averaged 130 metres for the season and leads his club for tackle-breaks with 82.
Where It Will Be Won: The forward battle will be brutal. Penrith’s representative props Tm Grant and Sam McKendry have been among their side’s best all season, while the Titans’ pairing of Nate Myles and Luke Douglas – combined with Origin back-rowers Greg Bird and Ashley Harrison – form one of the most imposing packs in the NRL.
The History: Played 6; Panthers 3, Titans 3. Nothing separates these sides with one win apiece at Centrebet Stadium.
The Last Time They Met: The Gold Coast secured a comfortable 36-18 win over the Panthers at Skilled Park in Round 15.
A first-half blitz was the key to victory for the home side who raced to an 18-0 lead at the break and led 30-0 soon afterwards before three late Penrith tries added some respectability to the scoreline.
Aidan Sezer kicked off proceedings after 10 minutes after a towering Scott Prince bomb was grabbed by Kevin Gordon who offloaded for the young five-eighth to score.
The Panthers looked like they might score 18 minutes later as they broke away up-field, but a Scott Prince intercept turned the game on its head as he offloaded to David Mead who showed all his customary speed in racing 70 metres to score. And six minutes later it was another turnover that hurt Penrith, with Lachlan Coote dropping the pill out wide and Steve Michaels swooping to run 50 metres for a try.
The Panthers needed to strike first in the second half but instead it was Sezer scoring his second with a 15-metre run straight up the middle to touch down unopposed.
It was game, set and match just minutes later when Brenton Lawrence raced onto a Ben Ridge offload before stepping both Coote and Luke Walsh in a 35-metre run to the line.
The visitors finally broke the drought with Walsh placing a perfect grubber behind the line for Arana Taumata to score; however any thoughts of a late comeback were extinguished with another long-range try as Mead raced clear to send Luke O’Dwyer across.
Late tries to Cameron Ciraldo and Ryan Simpkins closed the final gap to 18 points.
The Titans ran for a whopping 1910 metres to Penrith’s 1331, with 39 missed tackles and 15 errors not helping the latter’s cause.
William Zillman was impressive at the back for the Gold Coast with 193 metres and seven tackle-breaks. Michael Jennings was strong for Penrith with 153 metres, 15 tackles and two tackle-breaks.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & David Abood; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds & Jason Robinson.
The Way We See It: This is a tough one for the Gold Coast, who will pay the price if they travel to the foot of the mountains with one eye already fixed on their Round 26 clash with Manly. In fact, we expect this to be a particularly tight contest but with the finals berth on offer the Titans should boast a tad too much class for their rivals. Titans by six points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 3.30pm.
*Statistics: NRL Stats